Besides my penchant for big gray horses and veterinary science, I’ve developed a “thing” for other activities and causes along my life’s journey. One of them is for the people of Kenya, developed over aid- and missions-focused trips to Kenya in 2009 and 2011.

So imagine my excitement when I heard a story last week that combined equids and my bend toward humanitarian work in Kenya.

First, some background: Kenya’s equine industry is a far cry from that of the United States. Sure, when I’m visiting rural Kenya I see a lot of equids--maybe even as many as I see when I’m driving down the roads of Lexington, Ky. However, rather than manicured pastures studded with grazing million-dollar yearlings, in Kenya I see scores of working donkeys scattered by the road, tethered by pasterns (a common and accepted way of restraint there) and the occasional ratty-looking riding horse.


Photo courtesy The Brooke
Fiona Too Chelagat is an 18-year-old farrier who is cares for farmers' donkeys in Kericho, Kenya.

Due to donkeys’ utilitarian existence in many of the areas I have visited, I’ve never crossed paths with a horse-crazy person, an avid rider (though I saw some nice-looking show hunters in a wealthier part of Nairobi), or even an individual who’s focused on the welfare of these equids. The majority of Kenyans regard their donkeys as a crucial means to livelihood: transporting food (crops such as potatoes and corn), wood, and salable goods to market and, sometimes, even more importantly, life-sustaining water. Their attachment to their donkeys generally is not an emotional one.

Responsible care for donkeys is critical, otherwise many people aren’t able to provide basic needs for their family. Here’s where my passions collide: equids and helping Kenyans steeped in poverty. And here’s where Fiona Too Chelagat comes in. She is a spunky, ambitious 18-year-old who’s breaking barriers in her country—both in the equine welfare realm and in career expectations for women. This recent secondary-school graduate (Kenya’s equivalent to high school) is a farrier working in Kericho, which is in southwest Kenya, in the highlands above the Great Rift Valley.

Notes the Brooke (an equine charity in the United Kingdom), just over 43 million people live in Kenya, and 50% live below the poverty line (under $2 a day). People here are poor, and they survive mostly by farming a little patch of land or working as day laborers. Situated on the equator on Africa's east coast, agriculture is vital to residents and accounts for 60% of national employment, with many people relying on the country’s 1.8 million donkeys for transport and farming.

A longtime contact of mine in the U.S. horse industry, Cindy Rullman, is volunteering at the Brooke for a few weeks, and she let me know a little about what the organization has been up to in Kericho. Brooke and the Kenya Network for the Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies (KENDAT), the charity’s local partner, first started working in Kericho two years ago, and they noted that donkey foot care and a lack of trained farriers were major concerns. Rullman explains that KENDAT has been instrumental in launching National Donkey Welfare Day, celebrated on May 17, to highlight the plight of donkeys. KENDAT’s weekly national radio show Mtunze Punda Akutunze (“Look after your donkey and it will look after you”) has been dispensing advice and awarding prizes to exemplary owners. It reaches thousands of poor communities and is also heard in neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

Freya Dowson, online and video officer for the Brooke, writes, “To help address this problem we stared to work in collaboration with the district veterinary officer to run community education and awareness sessions, training local animal health providers and community farriers. These farriers are taken through a series of training modules before they are qualified and allowed to carry out farriery procedures. In Kericho there are 10 farriers that have been trained and qualified.

Fiona is one of those farriers; she had to break gender barriers to become trained, and she still does from time to time, as a young woman trying to convince farmers that their donkeys’ feet require care. Fiona says that working with donkeys was described to as “guys’ stuff,” but that she has excelled with handling the equids.

She describes many of the donkeys as having had too-long toes (to the point they were growing upward), large cracks, and evidence of hoof neglect prior to the farriers’ training. Many of the farmers used to sell the donkeys when the hooves got to this point, but now there are fewer donkeys getting to the point of lameness and disuse. 

Freya says that Fiona wants to go to university and become a veterinarian, “or if that is not possible she wants to do anything that will allow her to make a living out of helping working equines--she only needs the opportunity.”

To promote sustainability of the program in the long term, which is one of the major challenges of humanitarian work, Brooke is working to educate residents like Fiona to become local service providers who can help farmers in remote communities. In Fiona’s case the Brooke provided farriery training and a starter kit so she was able to go out on the road and start earning a living as soon as she could.

Watch Freya’s video interview with Fiona and learn a little bit more about this young woman and the work she’s doing.